by Lawrence Gipe
James Gouldthorpe has created over two thousand individual mixed-media paintings for his epic piece called Particles: A Painting in Ten Chapters. The work, created while he was an Irvine Fellow at Montalvo’s Lucas Artists Residency Program, unfolds over four galleries and looks like a graphic novel exploded on the walls. He calls the 3-year project a “time-based painting where the viewer can have a durational experience”. In this case, the audience is offered a chronological boy-to-man trajectory, with aspects of Gouldthorpe’s life lingered over in thematic segments.
The most exceptional work appears early on in Chapter Three: A Place Called Home. It feels more personal than the majority of what’s in the exhibition. Consisting of a single large painting on paper, the image is based on a photograph of his childhood home buried in snow. It carries with it the sensation of a memory that is cherished but also fading, the details blanched by distance and time.
In general, Gouldthorpe specializes in referencing cultural tropes that resonate with communal nostalgia. Chapter One: Early Education opens with a wall covered by an enormous globular cluster of tiny TV’s, each sketched in his economical, assured hand. The group’s effect is mesmerizing, calling to mind those formative hours that many of us spent hypnotized in front of the Tube. Other recognizable themes, like the cringe-worthy contents of high school yearbooks, inspire two major sections.
Like a postmodern Goya, Gouldthorpe takes gleefully to the task of distorting his erstwhile classmates in broad, satiric strokes. Chapter Two: Fifth Grade recounts the awkward poses of class pictures, and the results are deft and eerie portraits. He seems to blur multiple layers of memory together in their smeared faces, as in the mug of one unfortunate girl who is a dead ringer for MAD Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman. Chapter Four: Seniors replicates his entire senior class in hundreds of small watercolors arranged in a giant grid. This kind of obsessive archiving is a worthwhile genre itself, in league with R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country trading cards and Mark Mulroney’s shelves of wonderfully tweaked baseball cards, now on view at Park Life Store and Gallery. Further down the hall, in Chapter Six: Acquiring Things, his class’ pimple-faced youthfulness clashes with updated images when Gouldthorpe re-visits the same cohort decades later on Facebook. Using feed photos as source material, he exacts his last act of revenge – on them and on the fleeting folly of consumerist life itself.
Gouldthorpe drifts into thematic darkness in the final chapters. The “Particles” of the title become literal, as images atomize into abstract voids. The dilemmas of his aging father and the fragility of the body take over as subjects. In the last, a gloomy room, a sense of levity is offered on a desk in the form of a manual typewriter and a stack of blank paper. (Docents spoke of young people not knowing how to load paper into the machine.)
But, for those inclined – or perhaps old enough to enjoy reliving the tactile snap of courier hitting home – there are prompts in a notebook that encourage you to record your thoughts. Granted, this pestering to participate, a staple of Bay Area arts institutions, is annoying. Refreshingly, the gesture in this case is unforced and true to Gouldthorpe’s intentions. After all, the show expresses the warts-and-all poetry of what we have in common. He’d want to hear from you.
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James Gouldthorpe: “Particles: A Painting in Ten Chapters,” @ Montalvo Arts Center, through May 29, 2016.
About the author:
Lawrence Gipe is an artist, art professor and writer living in Oakland. His painting and drawings have been shown in more than 50 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.